In a video published by Bill Gates on his Youtube channel, originally titled “Humanity is fighting back against the Grim Reaper”, Steven Pinker, the Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, popular science author, and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University explains why people today are living longer, healthier, and happier lives than ever before. Pinker is one of Gates’ favorite authors.
In the video above, Pinker suggests that over the past two centuries, humanity has made great progress. For example, in the early 1800s (reliable measurements begins around that date), newborns were expected to live only a dismal of 30 years. But, thanks to advances in farming, medicine, and sanitation, a newborn today can expect to live more than 70 years. In fact, in the developed parts of the world, even more than 80 years.
Living longer and healthier than ever before
Today, not only the infant mortality rate is the lowest in history; but people of every age also have more years of life ahead of them than their ancestors did. Pinker gives England as an example, where life expectancy at birth was only 35 in 1840. In these years, a child who made it to one could expect to live to 45 (on average).
A 30-year-old lived to 55, and the lucky ones who made it to 70 had another eight years ahead of them. As time moves forward, the most dramatic improvements are seen in the most vulnerable, namely children.
Today, an English newborn should make it to 80. Compared to 30 of the 1840s, it is a huge improvement. What’s more, even the old people now have more years ahead of them: today, a 70-year-old is expected to make it to 86.
The good thing is, these improvements are global. It’s happening in developing countries as well. For example, in Ethiopia, as late as 1980, almost a quarter of the children died before their fifth birthday. Today, fewer than 6% die, and the number continues to fall.
Pinker concludes “humanity is fighting back against the Grim Reaper”.
Named as one of the world’s most influential intellectuals by various magazines, Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind.
Pinker’s academic specializations are visual cognition and psycholinguistics. His experimental subjects include mental imagery, shape recognition, visual attention, children’s language development, regular and irregular phenomena in language, the neural bases of words and grammar, and the psychology of cooperation and communication, including euphemism, innuendo, emotional expression, and common knowledge.
He has written two technical books that proposed a general theory of language acquisition and applied it to children’s learning of verbs. In particular, his work with Alan Prince published in 1989 critiqued the connectionist model of how children acquire the past tense of English verbs, arguing instead that children use default rules such as adding “-ed” to make regular forms, sometimes in error, but are obliged to learn irregular forms one by one.
In his popular books, he has argued that the human faculty for language is an instinct, an innate behavior shaped by natural selection and adapted to our communication needs.
He is the author of seven books for a general audience. Five of these, The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997), Words and Rules (2000), The Blank Slate (2002), and The Stuff of Thought (2007), describe aspects of the field of psycholinguistics and cognitive science, and include accounts of his own research.
In the sixth book, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), Pinker makes the case that violence in human societies has, in general, steadily declined with time, and identifies six major causes of this decline.
His seventh book, The Sense of Style (2014), is intended as a general style guide that is informed by modern science and psychology, offering advice on how to produce more comprehensible and unambiguous writing in nonfiction contexts and explaining why so much of today’s academic and popular writing is difficult for readers to understand.
Most recently, Pinker published his book Enlightenment Now, where he paints an optimistic picture of the future of the Earth.
Pinker has won awards from the American Psychological Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society and the American Humanist Association. He delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 2013.
He has served on the editorial boards of a variety of journals, and on the advisory boards of several institutions. He has frequently participated in public debates on science and society.
- Steven Pinker on Wikipedia